In this extract from my forthcoming book, To the Brink, I am privy to a whole new perspective on the meaning of suffering while biking India
“Malamūtra, excrement, is so intrinsic to life in rural India that for some it constitutes their sole reason to be. I saw a thirteen-year-old boy who should have been at school squatting under a cow’s backside instead, his job being to wait until the thing shat. When finally it did, he caught the deluge in a rudimentary baseball mitt fashioned from an old grocery bag. Like an expert pastry chef he then mixed in some straw and spanked the steaming matter into four dung-patties before laying them out in the sun to dry for fuel.
It wasn’t long before I, too, was using the road as a lavatory. Hygiene standards were scant in the truck restaurants I used as refueling stops (it was just samosas and occasionally dhal in the impoverished north, no rice or noodles), and after a few days I could last barely an hour in the saddle before having to dive off into a field and yank off my shorts. But the most distressing part of biking through Uttar Pradesh wasn’t so much the lack of sanitation, it was witnessing the pitiful value placed on human life: grannies armed with shovels loading gravel trucks by hand, cheaper than renting a loader, and young men squatting on farm harrows being jerked around behind a tractor, their lives worth less than a block of concrete.
And when it came to suffering, India was like nothing I’d ever encountered: stray dogs with open sores, maggots eating them alive from the inside out, and beggars with hideous deformities, arms shrivelled and legs missing, using sticks to manoeuvre themselves between lanes of traffic. A puppy was flattened before my eyes, followed by its mother, her teats heavy and swollen, trying to reach her stricken offspring. Destitute men, very obviously mentally ill, wandering naked, their hair filthy and matted, going—where?
And just when I thought I’d seen it all, I rode past a pile of hessian sacks dumped in a drainage ditch. I looked closer and saw a face, shrunken and cadaverous, hidden in the folds. It was ten in the morning, already blazing hot. Had anyone noticed the man was dead? Did anyone care?
Coward that I am, I rode on.
It was scenes like these in 534 BCE that shocked a local twenty-nine-year-old prince, Siddhartha Gautama, into renouncing courtly life to seek insight into the root cause of suffering. On a rare outing from the confines of his palace, he observed for the first time the horrors of penury: disease, malnourishment, and death. Deeply moved by what he’d seen, the young aspirant embarked on a spiritual quest, living first as an ascetic, before settling for a more moderate path between excessive self-mortification and material indulgence. After meditating for forty-nine days under a pipal tree in modern-day Nepal, he attained enlightenment. The rest of his life he dedicated to refining and disseminating a self-help programme for others, the so-called Middle Way of Buddhism.
I was also deeply moved by what I’d seen, but as an outsider, just breezing through, they were not my problems to get involved with. This had been firmly impressed upon me after witnessing a head-on collision between two buses on the road from Kathmandu. One of the drivers was pulled from the wreckage, unconscious and drenched in blood. When I’d stepped forward to offer cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the crowd, by now hysterical with grief, pushed me away, shouting: “Not your problem! Not your problem!” And the man had died at my feet.
The more horrors I encountered on my way through India, the more I realized that elevating the gaze an inch above the horizontal was a coping mechanism reserved for the foreigner, another baffling privilege of the antediluvian caste system. For the scheduled castes, immersed as they were in hardship and suffering 24/7, a very different means of detachment had been prescribed by the Buddha. At the heart of the Middle Way was a methodology allowing people to function regardless of what was going on around them, including tools to keep from turning to emotional mush every time life put the boot in. The key lay in addressing the nature of true Self. Did the sum and substance of a person reside in the corporeal world of flesh, blood, and bone? The senses? The so-called personality? No. In India, this take on reality was too grim and depressing. What was needed, according to Gautama, was a shift in consciousness, achievable through meditation, the same cognitive control technique I’d used myself on the Atlantic. By exercising One Pointed Attention, the phenomenal appearance of worldly existence, the layers of illusion, could be stripped away to reveal, at its innermost core, true Self, impervious to circumstance. For Hindus and Buddhists this was the Atman, the Supreme Reality inherent in all things.
Divine being or not, the Buddha was certainly a cracking shrink for his time. Equipped with this early form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Indians living at the time of Christ could hope to secure some semblance of peace and composure in the gut-wrenching mayhem of their everyday lives. Moreover, from all that I had seen, the Middle Way seemed as relevant now as it was 2,500 years ago. Contrary to the success story on everybody’s lips, in particular the two percenters hogging ninety-eight percent of the nation’s wealth, India’s great leap forward was still a pie in the sky to the average farmer, of whom more than seventeen thousand committed suicide each year over crop failures and compounding debt.”
All Rights Reserved – © 2014 Jason Lewis